Britain’s roads about to get smart technology
by Adrian Quine

Britain’s ageing road network could become far more reliable if new technology is adopted according to Cambridge University Professor Robert Mair who is also a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.

Victorian structures such as bridges, tunnels and viaducts will benefit from the new technology which uses special sensors to identify potential defects before they become a problem. The technology has been developed by the ‘Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction’ (CSIC) which Professor Mair heads.

The organisation has just been awarded a further 5 year funding grant from government quango ‘Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’ (EPSRC), for further research.

The technology involves fitting small sensors, about the size of a fifty pence piece, to stress prone parts of aging structures. The sensors then send data via fibre optic lines or wireless networks. Engineers can then monitor potential problems in real time and eliminate issues before they become a problem.

“The cost of existing infrastructure maintenance is huge and digital technology can make a huge difference” says Professor Mair. “If we can reduce the need for road closures by ensuring that infrastructure is robust there is not only going to be an economic benefit but it will also improve all our everyday lives” he said.

It’s estimated that the UK needs to spend around £400 billion on new and refurbished transport infrastructure by 2020. Experts predict that around half this figure is needed just to maintain and upgrade the existing road network. Anything that potently extends its life will come as a welcome boost to the department for transport which is facing a 30% cut to its budget. Today’s conference conveniently coincides with the chancellor’s autumn statement.

As well as roads this new smart technology can also be adopted into new design schemes. It is currently being tested on the railway network and will be integrated into new lines such as HS2 and Crossrail. CSIC is also working with the National Grid to make the power network more robust.

Professor Mair believes one of the major benefits will be a breaking down of traditional barriers between academia and industry. “We want to see white coats and hard hats working together in a way that unleashes creative energy” he is to tell delegates later today.

CSIC is currently working with 40 different industry organisations with 80 site demonstrations currently being undertaken to prove the concept. Director of CSIC Jennifer Schooling said “We are engaging with decision makers in key markets so that they are well informed of the value of ‘smart’ innovations in infrastructure and construction.” Professor Mair points out that as well as roads and railways, smart sensors could be used on listed buildings, bridges, sewers and indeed anything that is requires heavy maintenance. “Where we can inspire practical people to think more creatively and creative people to think more practically the results can be profound.” He said.

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